It is not rare in Mauritania to see blind beggars guided by slaves in chains, says Boubacar Ould Messaoud. That disturbing image and many others in that country -- like the enslavement of women to breed more slaves -- belong to centuries past, but they persist.
"Even when the master is blind and a beggar, a slave is his property till the end; he laughs for his master, he cries for him, and he is his shadow," said Messaoud, an anti-slavery activist who is the founder and president of SOS-Esclave, an organization also known as the Mauritanian underground railroad.
Messaoud has been jailed and was denied a U.S. visa in 1997, until Bianca Jagger and 48 lawyers came to his aid. He was born a slave but overcame his lot because his uncle, who earned extra income as a butcher, put him through school. Eventually, he became an architect and director of his country's planning agency until he founded his emancipation movement and organized demonstrations in 1980 to protest the sale of a slave.
He was arrested and given a light sentence by a military tribunal. Three months later, a declaration was made abolishing slavery -- the fourth time slavery has been abolished in Mauritania this century, according to the American Friends Service Committee. But land reforms aimed at redistributing property to former slaves were never implemented.
In Mauritania, slaves are leased to herdsmen to generate income for their owners, a practice that is several centuries old, Messaoud said in an interview Wednesday. By his account -- which meshes with human rights reports -- the status of slave is passed from generation to generation, and work begins at age 4. Adult male slaves often are able to run away, but women and children are seldom so fortunate. "Women come to Nouakchott asking us to free them and their children," he said, referring to Mauritania's capital. "Only then does slavery become visible."
Although slaves work without pay, their status in society rises and falls with that of their masters. "They are the ones to authorize marriage. They feed them and rent them out. Slaves don't even belong to themselves," Messaoud explained. Women become sex slaves and are often separated from their children, who are given to family members; some slaves, he said, are rented out as jockeys for camel races in Persian Gulf states. Flogging is still common, he said.
Messaoud said U.S. policymakers and diplomats familiar with the issue face a dilemma: Exposure of slavery in Mauritania will logically lead to a congressional cutoff of grant aid to his country, which officially attributes remnants of slavery to poverty and lack of education. "We do not only want to change the mentality, but to penalize people with concrete acts. We want to revise the social structures," said Messaoud, whose organization includes the children of slaves and masters who would like to see change. For example, Sidi Mohamed Ould Yassa, 24, who accompanied Messaoud on his current U.S. trip, said his parents and cousins own slaves, along with "everyone in my village."
The Student Prince
Everyone can have dreams -- even a young, modern monarch in the making, who fantasizes about "just going to the beach and listening to music" for the summer, a reasonable wish for any 26-year-old.
The reality for Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, however, is that he is grooming himself for the business of kingship. "It is mostly a process of finding your own way," he said pensively, dressed in three understated shades of charcoal, pewter and gray. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in political science on May 24, he must "pack and send my life back home," where he may stand in for his father, King Harald, and lead government sessions when the king is out of the country. Among other duties, he has served as second in command on a missile torpedo boat and visited troops in Bosnia and ethnic Norwegian communities in nine U.S. states.
The king has no real political power in Norway's democracy but retains formal functions, such as signing laws, making state visits and attending cabinet sessions. Constitutionally, he has a delaying veto through which he can block legislation up to three times before it becomes law -- a prerogative that has never been used.
Prince Haakon said he plans to "catch up on Norwegian politics" and audit law courses. His fondest wish is to be involved in development projects in Third World countries, but royalty comes with compromises. He envisages working for an international organization after his studies, "an experience which will make me more fit to be a monarch."
When he said that Norwegians have "a long way to go in terms of understanding one another and accepting other cultures," it made headline news at home. And the young prince says he was awed that there are 140 to 170 mother tongues spoken in high schools in Los Angeles. "There are social frictions of course, but still people are living with mutual respect and peace," he said. "This is a functioning democracy. There are so many different ethnicities, which is a real window to the world. If it is possible here, it is possible elsewhere.
"It is the interaction between people that is important. Through it we can solve problems, find inspiration and learn how to think differently about various issues. . . . We are not talking about a melting pot anymore, but about mutual respect and peaceful coexistence," the future king said. "I don't have a political agenda. But I do definitely want to modernize the monarchy in a way that will make it more worthwhile for me and my children and for the good of the country."